In September 1961, the Welsh philosopher, logician and anarchist Bertrand Russell was jailed (again). Russell, aged 89 at the time, was part of the anti-war group Committee of 100. After organising a campaign of mass civil disobedience against nuclear weapons – mostly sit-down demonstrations drawing crowds of up to 15,000, later followed by direct action blocking piers and Air Force runways – some members had been summoned to court for inciting the public to “commit breaches of the peace”. Rather than agree to 12 months of “good behaviour”, Russell spent seven days in prison alongside 31 others.
Though unsuccessful on its own terms, the Committee of 100 has been cited as “the first major example” of mass nonviolent civil disobedience in the UK. Its tactics, rooted in anarchism and decentralised organisation, helped lay the foundations for the peace protest movement of the 60s and 70s, and echo through modern movements like Kill The Bill, Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. Most recently, they can be felt in Don’t Pay UK – a grassroots campaign against the rise in energy bills.
Thirty-one British energy companies have capsized since the start of 2021. The energy price cap jumped 54 percent from £1,277 per year to £1,971 in April. On the 1st of October, it will rise again to over £3,500, which the National Energy Action (NEA) predicts will push 8.2 million – one in three – households into fuel poverty. Money expert Martin Lewis has been on TV literally begging the government to intervene to avoid deaths. Businesses from music venues to chip shops are already folding, unable to cover their bills. The situation is completely untenable, and it’s being met with government silence.
Emerging from the void of leadership, Don’t Pay aims to build a “mass non-payment strike of energy bills”. If the price hike goes ahead in October and the campaign hits one million pledges, those involved will cancel their direct debits. The movement hopes to become the “biggest mass non-payment campaign” since the civil disobedience around the Poll Tax in the 90s.
Introduced by Thatcher’s conservative government and opposed by over 80 percent of the population, the Poll Tax was a fixed payment for all adults – regardless of income or resources – to their local council. It replaced the previous rates system, which was paid by residential property owners based on the value of their home. There were widespread protests and over 17 million people refused to pay, making it the biggest civil disobedience campaign of the 20th century. Between April 1990 and September 1993, over 25 million cases were taken to the magistrates’ courts for refusal or inability to pay the Poll Tax, overwhelming the legal system and making it impossible to enforce. Don’t Pay is modelled on the same principle.
“I was part of the Poll Tax rebellion and I see many similarities with Don't Pay,” says Glyn Robbins, 57, a Don’t Pay activist from East London. “Don't Pay has attracted huge support and is already establishing a network of local groups of the kind that were essential for defeating the Poll Tax through community solidarity and mutual support.”
The Poll Tax was a colossal failure, ushering Thatcher towards resignation in November 1990 and scrapped when John Major became Prime Minister. One big difference between the Poll Tax and energy bills, though, is the potential financial risk. Many commentators, including Sean O’Grady, associate editor of the Independent and a former Poll Tax activist, have flagged that non-payment could shatter your credit score (which can make it harder to obtain housing, loans and phone contracts), and force households onto prepayment meters.
“All the council could do was send letters and take one to court,” O’Grady writes. “The energy companies, however, can cut you off [...] They can forcibly enter your home to stop the supply of gas and electricity, and can also take you to court for the debt.”
For the significant chunk of the population who literally cannot afford to pay, these risks are unavoidable either way. Robbins argues they’re also overplayed. “It was the same with the Poll Tax,” he tells me. “I never paid a penny and nothing happened because there was too many of us. The courts were jammed-up and the thing became unworkable. With eight million households already in fuel poverty, many relying on loans and credit to get by, it's a bit disingenuous to be warning about the risks of not paying.”
“People know the risks because they’re the same they’ve been facing for years,” Rebecca Winson, an organiser at the NEF, echoes. “The penalties for people who won’t pay their bills are the same as the risks for people who can’t pay. We should be asking ourselves as a country why energy companies and the government are outraged by the idea of people willingly risking poor credit scores, bailiffs and disconnection, but have been silent for decades about people who are forced to live that reality if they can’t afford to pay for a basic need.”
Not everyone will be in a position to take part in Don’t Pay (there are four million households on a prepayment meter, for starters), but for Robbins it’s “one thing people like me, on Direct Debit, can do to hit the energy robber barons where it hurts. Other people are in different situations, but the main thing, as it was with the Poll Tax, is that we stick together.”
This sense of solidarity is noticeable across all areas of the UK. There is strike action on a weekly basis – rail workers, postal workers, criminal barristers, journalists, refuse collectors. Students and pensioners have been on rent strike. Even right wing pundits have been slamming private water companies for “trousering million-pound salaries” while losing three billion litres of water a day to unfixed leaks.
“Millions of working people are struggling in practically every aspect of their lives at the minute,” says a spokesperson for Enough Is Enough, a campaign founded by trade unionists, football fans, tenants organisations and labour movement institutions to confront the cost of living crisis. “Normal people are sick of being asked to pay for every crisis coming along that they didn't cause.”
Enough Is Enough says that by this weekend they will have “well over 100” local branches around the UK – in places like Blackpool, Stoke, Crawley, Luton, Basingstoke as well as big cities – mobilising workers and first-timers, organising mass demonstrations and days of actions against energy companies, as well as raising food collections. The campaign has declared a National Day of Action on October 1st, with protests across Britain. “This coming period will be ugly as well as inspiring,” their spokesperson says.
Energy bills are only one aspect of the cost of living crisis, but they are a significant one. Winson believes that a non-payment campaign like Don’t Pay “makes very clear what the real issue is around the energy crisis. It’s not necessarily that wholesale prices are high, it’s that they’re being passed onto all of us while shareholders and CEOs reap profits which reach into the millions and the government do nothing.”
Like the Poll Tax, Don’t Pay is a strength in numbers campaign. The action won’t go ahead unless one million people pledge to do it. At the time of writing, pledges stand at over 129,452 – a long way off the million mark, but it’s climbing by thousands every day. If the action does go ahead, campaigners say, it could present huge logistical problems. Would the government accept one million people having their credit tanked? Would it be feasible to put a million people on prepayment meters?
“It may very well be that there are simply no logistically or politically enforceable financial penalties and therefore companies and the government are forced to the negotiating table,” says Winson. “A non-payment campaign does far more than a peaceful protest or petition or letters to MPs. It hits companies where it hurts, and means there’s a real cost to them not engaging with the issue.”
The hope is that the threat of non-payment action will force intervention ahead of October, so that no one will find themselves trying to cope with a 80 percent bill hike. However, with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss stumbling over one another to court a minuscule online voting base preoccupied with the “culture wars” while Boris Johnson mostly posts about GCSE results, the threat would have to be a significant one.
“There's still plenty of time for Big Energy, Ofgen or the government to do the right thing and reduce these totally unreasonable, unaffordable bills. I'm very confident they will have to, but only because of the pressure coming from Don't Pay and others,” says Robbins. “I hope Don't Pay will show that we don't have to put up with the attacks on our quality of life – and our planet – and remind us that we are the real power in society and we demand better.”
“It [also] gives people a real sense of their collective power,” adds Winson. “One person not paying does little. One million people not paying creates a huge problem that has to be faced.”